Planning Ahead

Which grain will you grow? Well, what do you like to eat? One family I know uses 4 bushels of wheat, 1 bushel of oats, and 2 bushels of shelled corn a year. Raising your own grain may require less space than you thought. A family rice paddy can produce copiously in a very small area. Organic, handraised wheat will produce at least 40 bushels per acre, and quite possibly more, up to 80 or so. That means a patch of wheat 20 x 55 feet or 10 x 100 feet could produce a bushel or two—probably a year's supply of wheat for a family of 4. An acre could provide you with a ton or more. You can plant any size patch of grain—30 square feet, 1,000 square feet, or acres of it—if you have the land. Plant whatever's right for you.


Square Feet to Grow I Bushel

Barley Buckwheat Corn, field Oats Rye

Sorghum, grain Wheat

10x90 10 x 130 10x50 10x60 10 x 150 10x60 10 x 100

An acre of corn can produce over 150 bushels of grain, plus stalks and cobs that are good livestock feed. That corn can maintain one pig, a milk cow, a beef steer, and 30 laying hens for a year, plus cornmeal for your family. To break that down, figure 12 bushels of corn to get a weaner pig to butchering weight, a bushel of grain per year to provide a good grain supplement for one sheep plus a lamb, 6 bushels to supplement for a milk cow, 6 for a calf you're raising for beef. You might choose to grow wheat, buckwheat, and rye for baking, sweet corn for a vegetable, and oats, corn, and a hay mix for your collection of livestock. You could easily do all that on 5 acres. And you would have healthy milk, eggs, and meat because all the food that went to make them would be free of residues if you farm without using poisons.

But also choose your grains to be suitable to your soil and climate. Your county agent can tell you what common grains and varieties are being most successfully grown in your area. Find out the length of the growing season in your area and compare that with the shortest period of time required to mature a crop of the grain you're investigating. If you're trying something unusual, start with a small area and see how it grows. Next year, if results are good, you can plant more.

If you intend to raise a year's supply of some basic grain like wheat, plan your area to plant according to how much grain you need to harvest. If you have in storage 40 lb. for each child in your family and 300 lb. for each adult, that should be plenty for your year's supply until the next harvest. On the other hand, the concept of having an extra few years' supply probably goes farther back than Moses and is still sound: enough to eat and enough to plant too. The starving people are the ones whose storage ran out and who ate their seed or who have no land to plant.

Steve Solomon, a gardening expert whose books include Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1989), wrote of planting hand-grown grains: "Yields may be expected to range from 20 to 60 bushels per acre (25 to 75 lb. per 1,000 square feet), so the serious grower must consider plots of several thousand square feet."

The one thing you can't plan ahead for is the specific weather of your upcoming growing season. The wrong kind of weather can transform the best-laid plans into disaster. A very dry summer can ruin some grains. An exceptionally cloudy and wet late summer can drastically reduce harvest. The Palouse area wheat farmers still talk of the fall of 1893, when there was such unending rain they couldn't harvest any of their grain. A plague of locusts or rabbits or hail can be equally destructive. A severe hailstorm with big heavy stones or a torrential downpour that beats everything into the ground can ruin your grain crop. Most full-time grass-grain farmers carry hail insurance, because they're almost certain to lose some or most of the crop during a certain percentage of the years, when hailstones happen to fall on their fields.

It helps if you have more than one kind growing, but nothing is ever for sure when you're farming. That's why it's so important to put away both cash savings and food surpluses in a good year, in case you have to go a year or more without a harvest. It happens. It's not a matter of if, but when.

"Spring" and "Winter" Varieties: Specific grains are covered in the alphabetical guide to grains that follows this introductory material. The varieties are discussed under each grain, but there is one general pattern that occurs repeatedly: rye, wheat, barley, and oats don't have to be planted in the spring. You can plant "winter" varieties in the fall. "Spring" varieties are planted in the spring and harvested in the summer. "Winter" varieties are planted in September or later, and harvested the next summer. Snow Insulation. Grains will start to grow and then will die back in winter, but they won't kill off completely unless you have terribly cold weather with no snow cover. It's good to have snow covering the ground during all your really cold weather because it insulates the crop underneath and prevents it from freezing. Last December there was a prolonged spell of below-freezing weather—10° or more below zero—and no snow cover. A lot of farmers around here lost their winter wheat crop, and a lot of water mains (including ours) froze up that ordinarily would have been buried deeply enough to be all right. Stooling. The other thing that can go wrong with winter grain is "stooling," in which the grain develops a real stalk. That's trouble because grain in the stalk or "stool" stage is more easily winterkilled. That's another good reason for not planting winter grain too early. You can also hold back stooling by sending animals in to graze; that holds it off until it's too cold to grow any more. Winter/Spring Varieties Compared. In most years the winter wheat will make it through all right and do better than the spring wheat. For example, the average yield for hard red spring wheat is 3.7 lb. per 100 square feet, compared to 4.3 lb. per 100 square feet for hard red winter wheat. The winter wheat does better because the next spring it has a head start and takes off with the first warmth, just like my February peas. More seed is usually planted for winter grain than spring in order to make sure that plenty makes it through. So a winter variety is generally a bigger producer than a spring one, but there is a slightly higher risk factor involved for a winter variety; a torrential downpour shortly after seeding could wash out your seed, or an extra-freezing-cold winter with no snow cover to keep the plants snugly warm underneath could kill your whole crop. But if you do lose the winter grain crop, you'll have time to plant another one of a spring variety.

Winter grain that is planted in September and then gets rained on comes up within a week and looks like a newly planted lawn, green and lovely You can let the cows graze on it, but don't overdo it. The grain needs to gather some energy to winter on. When cold weather comes, the grain will turn brown and look dead. But it isn't. It's a grass, and next spring it will magically reappear and recommence growing up and up, from 2 to 4 feet high depending on how much moisture it gets, how fertile the soil is, and what kind of plant it is.

Answers to Introductory Grain Quiz


Bearded barley












Wild rice












Rye or oats















So the kind of grain, spring or winter, that you plant depends on what time of year you are planting it. It also depends on what part of the country you are planting in. Different types are better suited to special season lengths and amounts of rainfall and soil types.

It's all somewhat complicated, and you really would do best to ask your local granary (which buys grain from farmers), feed store, seed store, or any grain-growing farmer in your area to find out what types are generally raised in your area.

amount to Plant: Figure it in pounds, pecks, or bushels per acre. But pecks and bushels are uncertain amounts. There are 4 pecks to a bushel, and you can convert from bushels to pounds if you know the official per-bushel weight for a particular grain. But in the past, those official bushel weights have been different in different parts of the country and at different times. They are basically just an agreed-on average.

Exact amounts to plant are generally announced by companies that sell seed, so they're usually on the generous side. But if you are broadcast seeding rather than drilling, order extra seed, because you will lose a lot of your seed to birds or failure to cover all your soil with seed. (For information on these planting methods, see "Broadcasting" and "The Drill.") Also plant in proportion to the amount of moisture your crop will get: use more seed for an area with higher rainfall, because extra rain allows plants to grow more densely in an area. On the other hand, if you're short of money or seed, you probably can grow more grain with less seed than you think because of tillering (see "Tillers"). A basic rule of thumb is that 1 lb. of seed grain will increase to about 50 lb. of eating grain, and you want to plant 12 seeds per foot.



Alfalfa 60

Barley 48

Buckwheat 50

Clover, red 50

Clover (others) 60

Corn, field 56

Flax 56

Oats 32

Rye 56

Sorghum, cane (sweet) 50

Spelt 40

Wheat 60

Tillers. A stalk that holds a grain head is called a tiller, but usually anything more than the first stalk is referred to as a "tiller." Grass grains can have tillers. When they grow on corn, they are called "suckers" and are considered a minor matter because they don't bear serious ears but do add a little forage. But in other grasses, the more tillering, the better yield, because their tillers are identical twins to the first stalk and bear just as much grain. So your total yield from a single plant would be its number of "ears" or "heads" (usually one per tiller), multiplied by the number of kernels or grains per head, multiplied by the average weight of each grain. So you can get more than one head per grain you plant.

A further beauty of tillers is that often a lower rate of seeding will result in the grain plants growing more tillers per plant, resulting in a yield about as good as if you'd planted heavier. Even corn, though it won't produce good ears on the suckers, will produce more and larger ears if not planted thickly—for example, at the rate of 2,000 plants on a tenth of an acre (rather than 3,000). You might even get a better grain crop planting at a lower rate! On the other hand, you can't make 1 seed cover a whole field, no matter how good your soil is. Experiment to discover what works best for you.

Continue reading here: Of Seed and Soil

Was this article helpful?

0 0